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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Smart Notes - 9/23/08

1. Eli Manning: Game manager? Sportscenter and all the highlights showed Eli's impressive long pass on 3rd and 10 in overtime against the Bengals. But what impressed me was that immediately after that pass -- where the receiver had to toe the sideline to stay inbounds and the referee called it a catch -- Eli did not miss a beat: he hustled his teammates to the line to quickly run and play and avoid review of the play. This is Eli growing in his self-awareness. And the Giants got the play off without any review of the catch.

2. The rise of the terrible spread team. I forecast this day some time ago, but this year's college football season has wowed me with the number of just awful spread teams. Now, there's some good ones: Florida has great talent, and just about every top team has some kind of "spread" element to their gameplan. But there's a ton of just awful spread teams. This topic deserves a much more in depth treatment, but the basic gist is what I forecast a few years ago: the offense just isn't an equalizer anymore, but instead more of an amplifier. If you have great athletes you can isolate them in space, but if you don't then you're just giving them one-on-one matchups they can't win and asking your quarterback to play perfect or you can't win.

But the biggest reason is simply that everybody is doing it and there's just not much novelty to it. And it's not like you can fool a defense with some dizzying array of spread formations when each guy on defense played against spread teams for four years in high school and every week in college. That said, this also makes the cries from these teams and their coaches that there's a "steep learning curve" with their spread offense ring rather hollow. How much different is it to tell guys to line up differently and read the defensive end on the zone-read? There's lots of teams who successfully do that who use it only sparingly; it's unconvincing when teams that rely heavily on the zone-read and zone options claim that they need more time to teach it.

3. Wildcat, meet the Patriots. There's plenty of buzz going around about the Patriots losing big to the Dolphins. And there's lots of buzz that the Dolphins used a funky formation to do it. This buzz isn't all positive, as for some reason NFL guys (announcers, everybody) can only act derisively when they see something that strikes them as a "college formation" or part a "college offense." (Nevermind that Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense began as a "college offense" at Stanford.) I generally take the view that the NFL guys actually are right when they say their game is more complex and intricate than the college game, largely because they have near infinite resources and time to devote to those things. (And most every NFL game is a close one.) But it's like these NFL guys failed to see a single college game over the past three years.

If they had, they might have realized that what the Dolphins did against the Patriots was employ the "Wildcat" formation, made famous by Arkansas which used it with Darren McFadden running the show. The basis for the set is a single quarterback -- actually the running back -- and another running back who goes in motion to either run or fake a jet sweep. The other reason it is unforgiveable that these commentators can't figure this out is that this is not a bolt out of the blue: The quarterbacks coach for the Dolphins is David Lee, who was the offensive coordinator for the Arkansas Razorbacks last season under Houston Nutt. Indeed, I will let him explain the Wildcat series, in a video the Patriots obviously had not seen:

Now, the common wisdom among these NFL guys now is that this was a one-week fad, if the Dolphins even try to use it next week it will be snuffed out because coaches around the league have analyzed this, diagnosed it, and will annihilate it if Miami ever tries to use it again. Maybe so. But I wouldn't be on it. Of course this is not an every down thing (unless Ronnie Brown starts throwing twenty passes a game), but the reason this worked -- unlike some other NFL experiments with the zone-read or other gun styles -- is that this is an actual series rather than just a play or two. That's obviously the case because, as Lee explains in the video, it hinges on being a series rather than just a "good play." And the fact that it is a series makes it a self-contained offense in itself, as the series anticipates a defense's adjustments. Maybe it won't work, but I'd be surprised if it is as useless as these talking heads seem to think it will be. Just ask the Pats.